Monday, February 22, 2010

That there book-learnin

By Steve Weddle

A dude doing color commentary for the Olympic ski-jumping Saturday night was explaining why the athletes looked like six-foot-tall jockeys: “Fat don’t fly.”

Dick Francis died recently.

People who have never been to Chicago could probably recommend a good place for a drink if they’ve read a Sean Chercover novel.

So here’s the thing. Everyone wants to be able to play the piano or the guitar, but fewer people want to learn. People want to be karate masters, but don't want to get out of bed before the sun just so they can run ten miles.

They want to have done stuff more than they want to do stuff. People want to know stuff, but they don't wanna learn stuff.

I spent many hours, feet folded under me on hardwood floors, watching my sensei punch, kick, twist, turn, blah, blah, blah. I spent many hours working on center-of-gravity stuff, finding that little bit of extra power hiding in a hip turn, chanting "block-counter" over and over until I forgot about it.

When the dude said "Fat don't fly" about the ski jumping, I started writing a story. The "in-my-head" kind of story that never finds paper. A murder mystery at a ski jump school. Why? Because, c'mon. Ski jump school. How cool would that be? Do you know anything about ski jump schools? I don't. And you know what? It would be wicked cool to find out, especially if I found out while reading a novel.

Dick Francis taught more people about horse racing than [insert name of famous horse racing person here] ever did. I am not sure of the exact number of horse-racing novels he wrote, but I think it was something around seventeen million. And when you read something like that, you feel like you're learning something. Like watching a documentary on TV. "I'm not wasting my time. I'm learning about medieval castles while I fall asleep."

And Chercover's Chicago? Laura Lippman's Baltimore? James Lee Burke's south Louisiana? Sometimes you're reading a travel book wrapped around a murder.

You know all that hippie crap about how literature teaches us the something-something about the human condition? Or the soul? Yeah. Hokum. Part of what makes a great crime fiction book, for me, is getting the non-fiction hidden in the fiction. You know, like hiding your dog's heart worm pill in a piece of cheese?

The books in which you learn something. Books with place or occupation or culture. Part of why we read, according to some documentary I saw, is for escapism. To live another life for a few hundred pages. Sure, sounds like mumbo-jumbo to me, too. But Professor Egghead might be right about it.

I really dig seeing how a person does his or her job. My wife likes those reality shows about jobs -- fashion or cooking or catching fish. You ever see that Ice Road Truckers? Or the one with those folks who cut down trees? It's great to see how other people do their jobs. You feel as if you're learning something, connecting, y'know? Like, hey, I know a little bit, a very little bit, about trucking supplies over a frozen lake to over-worked Canadians.

To me, this is different than those period pieces they turn into movies. The "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to fall in love in one of those pretty dresses and go to a fancy dance and live in a house with bedpans and die of dysentery and leeches" kind of stories. I'm talking about the stories where you learn about someone's occupation, someone's professional culture. Someone's world. Someone's life. Where you're pulled into the world of a prison guard or a Chicago PI or a jockey or an Olympic skier. You're being pulled into someone else's world and watching lives fall apart and maybe, just maybe, get pieced back together. And isn't that what good fiction is always about?


Do you find non-fiction in the fiction you read?

Do you research other occupations for your characters?

Does reading about someone's job in crime fiction bug you or is that something you enjoy?


pattinase (abbott) said...

I could read about the minutiae of life-like job descriptions or how someone makes a souffle or the exact directions for getting to Zanzibar-- forever. Unfortunately, I also write such minutiae.

John McFetridge said...

I enjoy it.

And yes, it's true, you could probably recommend a bar in Chicago after reading Sean Chercover but I also like to read books about places I know to see them from a different perspective.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Yes and no. Like John, I prefer to see things and places I know to get a new perspective. I'll also admit I'm horribly American-centric in reading about locales. I've never been able to get much into foreign-set novels.

And I ended up blowing much of my Saturday this weekend watching a marathon of Pawn Star about a pawn shop in Las Vegas.

Dana King said...

Yes, I enjoy learning about something while I'm reading a novel. Your examples are all excellent.

I don't research new jobs as much as I might, but I've had enough different jobs, and friends from various fields, I can usually make a minor character work without too much digging. Major characters, I tend to stick closer to home.

I love learning about other people's jobs and manner of living, assuming it's well done, and slipped into the context of the story.

One of my favorite books to read was ROSE, by Martin Cruz Smith. I really felt like I was living in an Irish coal town in the 19th Century. The ending was a cop-out and defied believability, but the scenes in the town were priceless.

Val McDermid also does an exceptional job, also with a coal town, in A DARKER DOMAIN.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I love the details in a book that make me feel like I know the town or city. And, like John, I get a bang out of reading about the places I know well. It is interesting to see what I know through another pair of eyes.

However, if I feel an author is trying to teach me about the country or the town - I tend to put the book down. The best learning in fiction happens when the writing of plot, character, voice and location are seamless. Hit me over the head with the location or the minutiae and you pull me right out of the story.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

I always enjoy learning something new, so yes, I love finding out the "behind the scene" details that go into a novel about a particular occupation.

I don't watch many of the occupation reality shows, but my husband and I occasionally watch Ax men. These shows are great for writers to pick up authentic details.

Thanks for an excellent post, Steve.